Wednesday 31 December 2008

Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury: Channel 4, 30th Dec 2008

I was foolishly encouraged to watch a programme on Channel 4 last night about the “investigation” into a Victorian Archaeologist who claimed to have received his guidance from a long dead monk via the medium of automatic writing.

The reason I was initially keen to watch, was that Tony Robinson was accompanied by his own Dana Scully, a Skeptic called Becky McCall. Not sure if anyone else in the Skeptical community has heard of Becky but she was new to me. I’m not sure if the programme’s producer’s simply edited the footage in favour of the woo argument or if Becky didn’t really ask the sceptical questions I wanted her to. The programme therefore seemed biased in propping up the paranormal argument in the face of contrary evidence.

Three key sequences could have presented a more realistic explanation of the phenomenon:

The First was where Tony visited a purveyor of finest quality woo in an attempt to produce some automatic writing, guided by the long dead monk. 95% of the scribbles produced by Tony were completely unintelligible. Even with the guiding hand of the woo artist helping Tony out. But a small subset of the doodles could be vaguely construed as having some relationship to familiar letters, and some of these together hinted at possible words. One of the words determined from the writing session was “Wallace”, although to be fair, I could make out a W shape and a vowel shape followed by a bit of a squiggle. A later telephone conversation between Tony and the programmes researchers unearthed the name “Wallace” in some of the research documents.

This seemingly unlikely coincidence was trumpeted as a strange phenomenon for which no natural explanation was given. Disappointingly the Skeptic could not come up with a valid reason for the coincidence, which made this scant evidence seem even more plausible.

I would have liked the Skeptic to have explained a little about coincidence, probability and how the logic and statistics behind what seem unlikely events are often due to the laws of probability not aligning terribly well with human intuition and expectations. (Dawkins has written at length on this subject). I would have liked the Skeptic to conduct a similar experiment under conditions that are purely random with no suggestion of the paranormal. For Example, an alternative sample of automatic writing or other randomly produced text could be compared against another preselected document of similar size to the research material. If a word from this text could be deciphered and matched with a similar word or name in the preselected document, it would demonstrate how good the human brain is at recognising such patterns and being amazed by the coincidence once seen.

Secondly, Tony Robinson gave a little time to our old friend, Chris French, to provide a rational, logical and natural explanation for the phenomenon of automatic writing. Chris duly provided a valid natural alternative to supernatural guidance. However, even if Chris was given an equal amount of time to present his argument, I believe the programme would still have biased in favour of the supernatural explanation. As I have written before in previous blogs, presenting two sides to an argument, gives the false impression that each alternative has a 50% chance of being true. All of the empirical evidence that I am aware of for this phenomenon supports the argument put forward by Chris French. This was not made clear, and the viewer is left to pick what are presented as two equally valid alternatives.

Thirdly, the automatic writing allegedly assisted by the monk led the Victorian archaeologist to locate further archaeological features close to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Again I was disappointed to see that no attempt was made to see how many predictions he had made in total and how many were hits and how many were misses. It seems to me as if he was just playing a huge game of battleships, with the ruined abbey playing the part of the aircraft carrier. Surely all the archaeologist had to do was fire off a few salvos in the squares adjacent to the hit and he’s bound to find something else. To her credit the Skeptic did unearth another prediction from the archaeologist’s automatic writing that suggested another site of archaeological interest. The suggested area was surveyed by the geophysics team, and no archaeology was detected, supporting the hypothesis that he just made a lucky hit with the other location. I would still have liked to know how many predictions he made and how many hits he got, and then compared that to pure chance.

The programme also examined what were believed to be the bones of the monk, although a modern investigation showed no evidence of the wounds inflicted at his death and no way of substantiating the claim that the bones belonged to the monk. One of the bones claimed to be part of the monk was however identified as a medium sized mammal (non human) bone. As one of the words that could be vaguely deciphered from the automatic writing session was “pig”. The programme was allowed to close by reminding us that a pig is in fact a medium sized mammal (Cue the Twighlight Zone Music).

I believe the producers of this programme were desperate to try and present an equally weighted programme between paranormal and scientific explanation. In order to achieve this they had to underplay scientific evidence and big up circumstantial evidence and coincidences to bolster the paranormal argument. In the end all this did was keep the plates of woo spinning for this particular phenomenon, when scientific investigation of the claims could have led to case closed.

Boo Channel 4.

By the way, happy new year to everyone. This time of the year is good for top 10 reviews of the year and in case you haven’t read Rebecca Watson Top 10 Heroes and Villains of 2008, link below:

Saturday 20 December 2008

Nine Lessons And Carols for Godless People – Bloomsbury Theatre, 19th December 2008

Just because I take a rational and scientific view of the world we live in rather than a religious viewpoint, I don’t see this as a barrier to enjoying this festive time of year. I love the time off work to spend with family and friends, eating, drinking and making merry, and I see no reason to curtail my partying just because I cannot accept the notion of implausible virgin births and other associated incredulous doctrines. This lack of faith has led me on a journey of scientific discovery and enlightenment that has pushed my levels of wonder and awe of the universe far beyond what religion ever achieved for me. I’m therefore very keen to celebrate that wonder, and this time of year seems to be a suitable time to do just that. I imagine the thought process that led Robin Ince to instigating this event must be somewhat similar to my motivation for wanting to attend. We don’t want to be perceived as a bunch of miserable Atheists wanting to take the joy out of Christmas. I for one am happy to maintain our Christian heritage and Culture in a secular way whilst fully embracing the knowledge and understanding that has superseded our religious myths.

So for those who missed last nights Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People at the Bloomsbury, or for those who just wanted a reminder of what they saw, I have written a review of the evening. NB I wrote this blog for a general audience unlike the more focused clientele on the night so I have to apologise for competing with Cybil Fawlty at times on her specialised subject of the bleeding obvious.

Anyway I bumped into Sid Rodrigues in the Foyer prior to the show who told me that however good I thought this show was going to be, based on last nights feedback I could multiply that tenfold. Well Sid, I’m sorry to say you underestimated; it was even better than that.

During the first half of the show I managed to take a few notes on my phone to help jog my memory on who was performing and the running order. However, at the half time break my wife gave me a load of grief for tapping away on my phone during the show. Apparently it’s rude. Anyway as a result I failed to make any notes during the second half and as a consequence my review will inevitably and unforgivably miss out some of the acts or at best have them in the wrong order. So here’s a summary of the acts, bearing in mind that if your planning to see this show on Sunday night at the Hammersmith Apollo, you may want to stop reading now as the rest of the blog is bound to include a few spoilers.

Carl Sagan
I may not necessarily pick Carl Sagan as my choice for the greatest scientist of the 20th Century, but if I had to pick one person whose passion for science and whose skill in writing and broadcasting did the most to promote the public understanding of science in the 20th century, it would have to be Carl. Sagan is perhaps the only author I have read who is capable of writing poetry that just happens to be about science. In fact, so skilled and passionate was he in promoting the wonders of science and the awesomeness of the universe; he is not overly inconvenienced by his unfortunate death in 1996 in continuing this mission. His presence this evening opened the show with a description of our planet taken from Cosmos. Sagan’s dulcet tones explaining how the small pale blue dot on the screen caught in a ray of sunlight is the only stage on which all events in human history have played out. It’s the nearest thing to being placed in Adams’ Total Perspective Mind Vortex. As Sagan’s voice drifts over us the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra led by Martin White on the Accordion pipes in with Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (from 2001 a space odyssey) and we’re off.

Robin Ince
Our compare for this evening welcomes us to his folly and sets the comedy bar at a frighteningly high level for the subsequent acts to follow. Ince is please to be playing to a knowledgeable scientific audience and I think he promises a Heisenberg gag later on and, but I’m uncertain. Ince also notes that he will need to be careful to get his facts right. I therefore don’t feel too much of a pedant in pointing out that his story of Charles Darwin noting a comment from his brother Erasmus on “Survival of the fittest” is fatally flawed in the fact that the quote should be attributed to Herbert Spencer rather than Darwin.

Phil Harris
Our first musical act of the evening required a bit of a sing along, and although the words were simple enough, “Maybe something’s, wrong with me.”, as an audience we failed to raise the rafters and I sure my out of key droning along probably didn’t really help.

Stewart Lee
Although one half of the comedy duo Lee & Herring, Stuart Lee is now very well known as an outspoken atheist and his Jerry Springer Opera has certainly touched a few Christian nerves, much to my amusement. It turns out that we were lucky not to loose Stewart to the other side, after all surely a being as complex and intelligent as Richard Dawkins could not have evolved by chance. This evening Stewart shared with us his thoughts on Pope John Paul II lollipops, and mused on the likely Catholic opinions of licking the face of the Pope on a lolly after his death. And what should the face of the new Pope, Benedict XVI, adorn, well Stewart suggestion was a warning on Bleach bottles.

Phil Jupitus
This is the second time I’ve seen Phil Jupitus this year, the first time was filling in for the late great Ian Dury with the Blockheads. Tonight was somewhat different as Jupitus read us a couple of poems, one of George Stephenson and one on the joy of lying to children at Christmas. Phil freely admitted that reading his freshly written poems is much easier than having to do stand up and remember his lines, but due to the high quality of poems, he’s fully excused.

Simon Singh
Introduced by Robin Ince as his favourite living physicist, Simon Singh was one of one of the best performances on an evening of high standards. Simon Singh latest book “Trick or Treatment” is still wrapped up under my Christmas tree, so I can’t comment on that, but “Big Bang” made a superb job of explaining how we have gained our understanding of the universe, and this was his text for this evening. The Book itself explains how our knowledge has built up, from discovering the earth is round, to discovering the circumference of the earth and that we in fact revolve around the sun, right the way up to expanding universe and big band theory. At each stage of the journey he eloquently shows how we worked it out and built upon our previous understanding to arrive at the complex understanding we have today. This evening, Singh jumps right in at the end of the book to explain how Georges Lemaître predicted the expanding universe theory in 1927 and how it was confirmed by observations ten years later by Edwin Hubble. The main point of Singh talk however was his annoyance at the lyrics to the Katie Melua song “10 Million bicycles”. I have listed Katie Melua’s original lyrics below, with Singh’s corrections underneath.
We are 12 billion light-years from the edge,
That’s a guess — no-one can ever say it’s true,
But I know that I will always be with you
We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe,
That’s a good estimate with well-defined error bars, Scientists say it’s true, but acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you
More amazingly, Simon tells us that Katie actually got in touch with him and recorded a version of the song with Singh’s more accurate lyrics, which he kindly played to us.

Darren Hayman
The singer and guitarist from Indie band Hefner entertained us all with jolly song played on a jolly small ukulele

Ricky Gervais
I had to look this guy up on Wikipedia, but I guess we can’t expect a completely star studded line up. Anyway, it turns out that he’s pretty well known as a result of pigging backing on the success of that deep philosophical muse, Karl Pilkington. You know, the chap with a head like a fucking orange. Anyway, this Gervais fellow admirably entertained those present by testing out some stuff from his new show “Science”. From the extracts given, “Science” bears as much resemblance to its title as its predecessors, “Animals” and “Politics”. But as this was a Christmas show, Gervais showed us one of his previous gifts. A small card explaining that his present was a goat that had been given to an African Family. Gervias’ comic outrage on missing out on his present in lieu of some goat given to people he doesn’t know, was well received be my wife who to her dismay received a Well donated to Africa from one of her friends a few years ago. I assume the look on my wife’s face after receiving this gift was what encouraged her friend to purchase another gift for her a few days later.

After a brief intermission to empty bladders and purchase more beer Robin Ince gave us another short set before introducing what for many, me included, was the main draw of the evening.

Richard Dawkins
Not that we Skeptics accept truth merely on authority, but the first lesson after the intermission was taken from the 6th Gospel of St Richard (Unweaving the rainbow). Prior to this extract however, Dawkins read his article on “Gerin Oil”, which is an anagram of widely available and extremely dangerous drug.

It is of course at this point of the evening that my lack of note taking in the second half lets me down. The remainder is therefore the hazy memories of the next day. Curiously enough later on Chris Addison, assumed as Skeptics and Scientist we would all be taking notes. I gave the wife a hard stare at this point. Anyway, on with the show….

Phil Jeays.
Phil Fucked us all with a jolly child friendly little ditty about the attitude of a dying man on his deathbed. A laudable attitude that I hope to take myself one day, although not yet.

Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn had a little trouble plugging his guitar in. Trying to plug to female connectors together I think, but as he commented at the time, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Josie Long
Josie told as a completely true anecdote relating to David’s Hume’s refusal to have a deathbed conversion. What I liked about this event, is that Josie found no need to fill in such a knowledgeable audience on whom she was talking about.

Jo Neary
For those not bought up in the UK in the 1970’s, Pan People’s dance routines to one of the weeks top pop songs were renowned for their literal translation of lyrics into the medium of dance. Jo took this literal translation one step further with her one woman pan’s person dance version of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”. The facial expressions and exaggerated mine had the whole family pissing themselves.

Gavin Osborn
Gavin song about his fateful date with one of the curtain twins (Anna Curtain). It all was going swimmingly until he realised there were 3 people in the relationship. Having been involved with the Church during my teenage years I found this masterful song very easy to relate to.

Mark Thomas
After listening to the tales of Mark’s family and upbringing, I’m intrigued to meet his dad, Colin.

Christina Martin.
Christina put the fear of God in us, Oh hang on, not the fear of God, but the fear of something. Anyway she proclaimed herself to be a born again Christian with a captive audience of atheists. Fortunately she turned out be as sane and rational as the rest of the audience, only an awful lot funnier.

Colin Watson – (AKA Waen Shepherd)
Woooo, Yeah. Well actually I don’t remember those beach boyesque hits of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s but his song about a monkey, a blind kid, a shoe and something else was a complete triumph.

Natalie Haynes
After a hilarious routine on her annoyance with parents, I tried not to catch her eye as I had my kids sat on either side of me, they were incidentally finding her routine very amusing too.

Andrew Collins
One of the great Christmas traditions, mused Andrew, is the Christmas Movie, and after inviting the audience to nominate the best secular Christmas film, he went on to proclaim the Poseidon Adventure as the champion and the cause for his conversion to atheism. While the believers hang around in the upturned hull of the ship, awaiting rescue, the non-believers escape through the arse of God. Great Stuff.

Peter Buckley Hill
Peter gave the audience a choice of songs this evening, one about maths or one about Xmas. The audience’s clap-o-meter provided little help in making his mind up so he opted for the Xmas song on account of performing the maths one the previous night. I wanted to hear the maths songs, but was very happy with his choice in the end celebrating all the greats things about X, during this Xmas period.

Ben Goldacre
Ben defends the Rational from the attack by the Woo’s from his regular column in the Guardian and his equivalently named Bad Science Blogs and Book. Ben always takes a strong stance against quackery, alternative medicine and pseudoscience and the dangers they may lead to. This evening was no exception with a poignant and harrowing account of countless thousands of deaths in Africa from Aids due to the suppression of anti HIV drugs in favour of vitamin pills. Ben left the audience reeling with the true cost of the harm that one small piece of bullshit can cause. A tough act for the next comic to follow.

Chris Addison
Familiar to many, including myself as Ollie from BBC’s “The Thick Of It” Chris started off his set with “In the beginning was the word”. This turned to be far more relevant to an enlightened atheist audience than a meaningless bible quote. Chris talked about the importance of language and how the invention of the printing press was the key catalyst in the spreading of knowledge and the precursor to the advances in technology and understanding. So taken in was I, that I failed to notice the time, it was getting quite late by this point but I didn’t realise how late until Chris pointed out that my 10 year old son sat next to me in the front row should be in bed by now.

Tim Minchin
Tim’s 9 minute beat poem about “Storm” an Australian guest at a Dinner Party he attended was an unexpected treat and for me the highlight of the show. The poem itself was sheer genius, with Tim biting his lip throughout the first half of the poem listening to the inane ranting of Sagittarian, Storm and her spiritual and pseudoscientific viewpoint before finally cracking in an abuse of logic and reason. I tried to find a clip on YouTube to share with you all, but I couldn’t find one. If anyone can spot one please forward on to me.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan and Martin White’s Orchestra brought the evening to a close. I was hoping Robin would make a final appearance to take a bow on harvest his well-earned standing ovation, but the house lights came on, and we shuffled off into the night.

Well that’s about it for this review. Almost as long as he evening itself. The only better way I can see of fully expressing the feeling of joy, awe and comedy at this festive time other than “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People” is to hope that this is merely the inaugural annual “Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People”. I sincerely hope we can do it again next year, if so can we invite Stephen Fry, David Gilmour and Eddie Izzard. Thanks

20th December 2008

For my 2008 album click here

Monday 15 December 2008

Room "Fluffy"

I recall that some time ago when the UK’s national treasure, or Stephen Fry, as I believe he is also sometimes called, appeared on Room 101, he suggested a less negative and cantankerous alternative to Room 101. He suggested that Room “Fluffy” would be a good location in which to store the better aspects of life. So having listed my Top 10 items for Room 101 in my previous blog, I now turn my attention to the nicer things in life that I shall place in Room Fluffy.

Apple Macintosh Computers
My first job, back in 1984, was as a computer programmer, programming an Apple IIe micro computer. The Apple IIe had a 6502 chip, the same one used by the BBC Model B microcomputer, making it very similar to program. But I got swept along with the new IBM PC’s that were becoming available at this time and regrettably abandoned Apple until 2007 when I finally convinced myself to replace my latest dead PC with a Mac. Now all the PC’s in the house have been replaced by Mac’s and I’ve turned into an evangelical Mac bore. I don’t miss Ctl-Alt-Del or mucking around in the registry trying to remove spyware or wondering my PC is full of crap and running like a dog. The Mac just works.

BBC Radio 4
Despite whinging about “Thought for the Day”, Radio 4 remains one of the last bastions against the deluge of mindless, dull, banal entertainment. It’s a place where great comedy is born, (The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, The League of Gentleman, Little Britain etc etc) and it’s probably the only remaining public broadcaster in the UK to continue to put out thought provoking broadcasts covering multiple topics including my personal favourites of science and philosophy. There comes a point when the tedious self opinionated disc jockeys, their appalling choice of music, and pointless topics of conversations and telephone call-ins become too much to bear. When you eventually despair of them, try Radio 4.

Podcasts allow me to combine my love of Radio 4 and of Apple Gadgets with a perfect means of accessing the programmes I am interested in at a time that is convenient for me. In addition to some great Radio 4 podcasts, it’s also proved to be a valuable medium for accessing the thoughts of people with whom I share some interests. From my particular perspective, podcasts have enabled me to become more involved and informed on items such as critical thinking science and reason via great podcasts like the SGU, Point of Enquiry, Little Atoms, Skeptoid and Skepticality.

Technology & Gadgets
Like almost everyone in the privileged developed world, I have a small device in my pocket that can convert sound into radio waves that can be beamed up to an artificial satellites orbiting the planet and allow me to speak to someone on the other side of the earth. So what, I’ve got a mobile phone. But if you pause and think about it for a while and its pretty amazing. The technology I carry with me (which are all the by products of good science) would make me seem like I have the powers only attributable to a major deity to my ancestors.

Most people grow out of having to have the hottest curry possible. I didn’t, I just developed a love of spicy food.

Gibson Les Paul & Fender Stratocaster
These two pieces of wood have been the key ingredient in producing the most moving and evocative art I have ever appreciated.
The Gibson Les Paul is of course the weapon of choice for: Martin Barre, Jeff Beck, Chuck Berry, Marc Bolan, Peter Green, Dave Grohl, Steve Hackett, George Harrison, , Steve Jones, Alex Lifeson, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Paul McCartney, Gary Moore, Mike Oldfield, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Snowy White and Neil Young.
While the Fender Stratocaster is the primary axe for: Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Clapton, The Edge, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler and Hank Marvin
Imagine how dull your record collection would be if you omitted the above names.


Science is such a simple and brilliant idea. Instead of making stuff up or claiming to have had a divine inspiration, you use your brain to form an hypothesis, rigorously test your hypothesis using controlled repeatable tests, and get it peer reviewed by unbiased colleagues with no hidden agendas to form an accepted theory. Then, here’s the clever bit, rather than decreeing this theory as the gospel truth, you allow for modifications, tweaks and updates to advance our understanding as new data and evidence become available. Rather than treating Newton’s groundbreaking understanding of gravity as gospel, we allow a patent clerk to refine it a little further, eventually enabling us to accurately track and plot our positions on the earth via satellite navigation. Instead of assuming that we were sneezed out of the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure, thanks to a ships naturalist who took a nice trip around the Galapagos Islands, we can piece together the origins of our species. And with the help of other great minds we can also understand the origins and age of our planet, galaxy and indeed, Universe by building upon successive knowledge, learning, understanding and theories. Science has enlightened us with the understanding of our origins, taken us to the surface of the moon, and enabled us to live longer. Why are we not all getting excited at what we can achieve next? What breakthrough will we make when we finally get the LHC working? Can we solve world hunger through genetic modification of crops? Can stem cell research provide us with the knowledge to cure many diseases? Of course we need to be careful, but I’m excited to see what science can do for us next rather than be swept along by the tide of pseudoscience and fear of science promoted by ignorance and religions fearful of knowledge and understanding undermining their myths and loosening their grip on our minds.

Douglas Adams
Douglas Noel Adams (DNA) was always very proud of the fact that he was born in Cambridge in 1955, the same date and location Watson and Crick discovered an alternative DNA. Whilst being my favourite author, he is also a very good link to many of the other items I have placed in Room Fluffy. He beat Stephen Fry to be the first UK Apple Mac owner. He premiered his masterpiece (H2G2) on BBC Radio 4. He was a keen musician and fan of Procul Harlem and Pink Floyd, to which there are several references to in the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and whom he played with briefly on the 1994 tour, and I’m sure he must have had a Les Paul and/or Strat in his collection. He was also an avid technology, gadget and science enthusiast and friend of Richard Dawkins. In fact if it wasn’t for his premature and untimely death in 2001, he would have been first choice for my fantasy dinner party guest list (Hopefully he could have bought David Gilmour, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry along with him).

V6, V8 or V12 Engines
It may well be more environmentally friendly to drive around in a small car powered by a lawnmower engine, but bollocks to that. You can’t beat be a good sized engine 3.0 litre V6, minimum. Something that puts a smile on your face when you put your foot down. I’ll Hopefully move up to a V8 or V12 next, so long as we haven’t run out of oil or died of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, if someone can invent an affordable clean equivalent then I’ll give it a go, but the Toyota Prius or Gee Whiz aint it.

TMS (Test Match Special)
There’s nothing better than getting in the car on a glorious summers day and having the car radio tuned to Radio 4 Long Wave (198) to listen to days events unfold. Having the dulcet tones of CMJ, Aggers and Blowers eloquently painting the scene at Lords of the English batsmen deftly picking off a steady stream of runs from the unfortunate tourists.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Crispian's Room 101

It doesn’t really matter that this blog is hardly ever read. I use it as a useful outlet in venting my frustrations and annoyances, as I have reached that age where I can now officially be classed as a grumpy old man. George Orwell’s convenient Room 101 is a suitable abyss in which to cast my current top 10 offenders. I think the format allows us to assume that war, cancer, child abuse and the like are already safely locked away in room 101, leaving me to concentrate on the aggravations peculiar to me. And as this is my blog, and not a TV show, there’s no one to stand in the way of the exit for the following items:

Dumb Down TV
Rather than whinge about how facile soap operas and tedious Saturday night singing or dancing popularity contests are, I choose to simply ignore them, my TV has a wholly serviceable “off” button. I’m perfectly happy to remain in ignorance while others discuss B-Z list celebrities I’ve never heard of, or the unfortunate love affairs of fictional soap characters I don’t recognise. What is annoying however is still treating me as an idiot when I try and watch something a bit more educational. I do not need a recap after every commercial break to bring me back up to speed with what they told me 3 minutes ago. My attention span is not so short that I need to be shown snippets of what’s coming up later in the programme. I accept that different levels of programming are required to cater for all requirements, but try and make some documentaries that assume we’re not complete idiots. On the subject of documentaries, it doesn’t count by making a so called documentary such as “Come and look at this weird/overweight/disabled person”. There called “Freak Shows” not documentaries.

Pseudoscience & Superstition
Many people say, “What’s the harm in x” where x can be various forms of Alternative Medicine, Paranormal /Supernatural beliefs, Pseudoscience, Superstitions or pseudo-religions. Well there’s shed loads of documented cases where irrational beliefs in such nonsense has caused immense misery, suffering and death not to mention the untold deaths, war and terror sponsored by major religions. The following website is a catalogue of specific examples of “What the harm is”. I wont attempt to list particular examples here, but please check out the following link:. Where my beef really lies with Pseudoscience and superstition (In addition to the physical harm listed on the above link), is the deluded worldview and fantasies it cultures in those it takes in. I’ve got nothing against fantasy, in fact I love a bit of Tolkien, but when ones fantasies cross over to the real world, delusions paranoia and irrational behaviour will follow. I despair when I hear of someone who has read some twaddle like the “DaVinci Code” and as a result has become disillusioned in mainstream religion only to turn to new age nonsense or paganism because the culture we propagate promotes supernatural explanations over science, reason and modern enlightenment. I suppose ultimately what I want to send into room 101 are the unscrupulous charlatans, conmen and TV producers who prey on the gullible people seeking love, health, lost ones and wealth by unnatural means. But I also feel frustration with those who are so eager to accept a supernatural or pseudoscientific explanation when a perfectly natural explanation can inevitably be sought once we have equipped ourselves with the knowledge to do so. Please don’t go to an astrologer or psychic to determine you future, make your own future. Don’t pray that you children don’t get polio or measles, inoculate them. Don’t go to a homeopath or faith healer to cure your cancer, get chemotherapy. There was a time when we all had no alternative to religion and superstition to answer our questions and give us solace; it was called the Dark Ages. Why are so many hell bent on returning to these pre-enlightened times? If I could recommend just one book to put pseudoscience and superstition in its place, I would choose “The Demon Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan”.

"Thought for the Day"
Shame on the BBC for allowing irrational faith based communities to hijack their flagship news programme with their archaic, inane and irrelevant ranting. Why is bigotry, hypocrisy and self delusion given such a prominent soap box in a secular and enlightened country at the start of the 21st century. I don’t have to scan past episodes for a particularly nauseating example of such piffle, I’ll just use today’s hot air as a typical illustration. Today’s miscreant was a Muslim, but my annoyance is not directed at this particular delusion any more than any of the others given the platform of Thought for the Day to preach their drivel. The speaker today complained about the dangers of being drawn into virtual computer worlds such as “Second Life” and the escapism sought by sad individuals who are detached from reality. A religious person was complaining about the dangers of rejecting reality and truth in favour of being drawn into an imagined false reality. Hello?

Bad Grammar
I can tolerate regional accents, but there’s no excuse for not being able to construct a sentence with the correct syntax and semantics even if you come from Yorkshire. I went to see my wife’s bank account manager last week, (They wanted to see if they had any additional services they could sell us), and I spent the whole time biting my lip in attempt not to correct her grammar. She managed to get in several double negatives such as “I ain’t done nuffink” to which I have to resist the temptation of saying “Then if you haven’t done nothing, logically you must have done something”. Her most frequent annoyance however was her complete lack of understanding of tenses, when she used sentences such as. “I done him a favour” or “She come in her last week”. Arghhh. I accept that my grammar may be less than perfect, but I think I get the basics right. (I suspect that’s an invitation to receive comments on all of my grammatical errors in my blog). I am left with the inescapable conclusion that my Bank want me to think our accounts are being managed by retards?

Faith Schools
Of course I think the world would be a much nicer place without vast swathes of the population being indoctrinated into unchallengeable and incompatible beliefs systems based on pre enlightened wisdom and comparably barbaric morality. Such beliefs will inevitably lead to hatred, prejudice, injustice and war. But I can’t just vanquish religion as a whole to room 101, it forms part of our cultural heritage and has inspired great art, music, architecture and in its more benign forms provide comfort and solace to its followers. Banning religion to room 101 would obviously be no more effective than trying to ban alcohol or drugs, if a desire for it persists, its existence will flourish regardless. I’m also not terribly keen on loosing many of our traditions, holidays, ceremonies and buildings, but I do think these things can be maintained, but kept detached and impotent of their original intent. I very much enjoy visiting ancient Egyptian and Greek temples despite the fact that the deity’s they where constructed in honour of have now fully passed into mythology. I’d be happy to visit great Cathedrals and Churches, Mosques, Temples and Synagogues with a similar perspective to their relevance today whilst appreciating their architecture and cultural heritage. The key to a more enlightened populace, free from such dangerous superstition and faith is surely education and discovery rather than mandated dictation of any particular viewpoint. Such incredulous beliefs embedded in all religions could surely only take root in the furtive minds of the young. So instead of blindly indoctrinating children with the random beliefs of their parents, can we not equip them with empirical knowledge and the tools of critical thinking and the scientific method to allow them to form their own conclusions based on a critical review of the facts and evidence. One of the biggest hurdles I see to this philosophy in the UK, is the spread of faith schools who are free to preach their particularly dogmas and delusions. I don’t want my children to have Intelligent Design or Creationism presented to them as an alternative theory to evolution any more than I want them to have Alchemy taught as an alternative to Chemistry, Astrology and an alternative to Astronomy or Magic as an alternative to Physics. The UK has a great tradition of Catholic and Church of England schools with fine academic achievements. In a multi cultural society such us ours we should not be creating more faith schools for alternative belief systems, but converting existing faith schools to secular schools whilst maintaining and improving high academic standards and following an approved national curriculum based on established reason rather than historical myths.

TV Dinners

One of the most detestable excuses I frequently hear is “I work all day and don’t have time to prepare a proper meal with fresh ingredients”. I see no valid excuse for constantly troughing on individual salty microwavable mush whilst sat in the lounge glazed over by Eastenders. You may argue that my wife is fortunate enough to not have to work and therefore has the time to prepare a meal that can be enjoyed around the family dinner table when I get home from work. But when we we’re both working we still found time to do it. It’s simply a matter of priorities. Why do so many of us Brits place such a low importance on the family dinner table, it almost makes me want to be French. Well not quite.

Chav Suits
I’m sure that those that choose to wear pink velour track suits would view my rather nice Harris Tweed Jacket with equal contempt. But why do you need to wear a track suit when the only exercise you’re doing is sitting on the sofa, watching Tricia and eating crisps.

Cheap Chicken
When I was younger, I seem to recall that Chicken was more expensive and a bit of treat you wouldn’t expect more than once a week at best. We now live in a culture where chicken is so cheap it can be an everyday meal or snack. The consequences are of course born by the multitude of unfortunate and poorly treated animals cramped into vast barns for their short insignificant lives. I’m not an animal rights activist and I fully support the use of animal research to further scientific understanding and provide huge advantages in medical research and I’m perfectly happy to eat meat in many of its delicious forms, but I’m not prepared to unnecessarily abuse the animal before I eat it. I get immensely frustrated by people who will happily eat a chicken nuggets made from the beaks and arseholes of ill treated birds, but then balk at the prospect of eating a freshly shot rabbit that has lead a wild and natural life. (up until the point it was shot). If you can’t stomach the fluffy bunny whose guts you’ve seen spilled, then don’t eat the processed meat in the nice clean packaging just because the reality has been hidden. The consequence of “happy meat” will of course be increased cost, but if this means we can’t afford it everyday, then so be it.

Crap Music
This is one of my favourite topics to bleat on about, and I’ve whinged at length on the topic on the music page of my web site ( If you’ve read my music page, you will be familiar with my despair in the popularisation of superficial music based on commercial formulas manipulated by business people catering for preferences in image and dance moves over musicianship and originality. I suspect I’m passionate about the subject because I’m passionate about good music, to me it has the power to provoke emotions unreachable in me by other forms of art. People often counter my arguments by saying that it’s simply a matter of taste, “Led Zeppelin are not better than Boyzone, that’s just your personal preference.” I say hogwash to that hypothesis. I dislike particular music not because of its genre or my personal taste, but because it’s simply poor music. Consider a two dimensional matrix containing the full set of artists, groups, composers and all contributors to the collective of music. Imagine the matrix has a number of columns representing all genres and subtypes of music. There are columns for Rock, Pop, Country, Blues, R&B, Dance, Techno, Opera, Classical, Ballet, Jazz, Hip Hop, Rap etc etc. Each column will inevitably contain good and bad music, original, intelligent, genre defining music and palpable dirge. The varying quality in music in each column is represented by the rows, with the top rows reserved for the quality music, gradually moving down the rows with reducing musical quality, being careful not to confuse current popularity with quality. For Example if you looked at the Pop column, you may see the Beatles somewhere near the top and Bros much lower down. I chose Bros as a semi random example of something lower down in the Pop column, because enough time has elapsed for the sedimentation process to allow the dregs to settle into their rightful place. The clouded perception of many contemporary eyes may need time to reach a valid evaluation of new arrivals. My sedimentation analogy also applies to this missed cream that gradually rises to the top. Nick Drake would be a good example of an artist whose merit and reputation have gradually only come to the fore over time. In order to rebuke the argument of what I perceive as crap music simply not fitting in with my particular tastes, I like to think that I make an effort to cast my musical net horizontally across the top of the imaginary matrix. As opposed to selecting individual columns based on personal preference of styles, as I believe many do. Hence the celebrity status wannabes of Saturday Night TV talent shows rarely, if ever, make it into my net for the simple reason that they’re crap.

How many times have you been eating in a restaurant on Holiday in Europe or America only to hear a loud and whinging Yorkshire accent complaining about the foreign food or outrageous prices. Being a cricket fan, I follow the fortunes of my adopted county (Hampshire), but the cricket team I really support is whichever one is playing Yorkshire. Fortunately there’s a suitable icon that deftly represents the self opinionated and boorish Yorkshire mentality and their cricket team. I would therefore like to surrender him into room 101. In you go Geoffrey.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Debating Woo-Woo

Many rationalist take the stance that its not worth publicly arguing with believers as it gives nonsensical arguments an air of credibility by acknowledging that the matter is worthy of debate. I believe Richard Dawkins for one, cites this as one of his main reason for not concerning him self with such debates with creationists. I believe the other main reason is the likelihood of being unscrupulously edited and cut to misrepresent his argument. At first glance this seems irritating and frustrating to refuse to debate even though you hold all of the key facts and evidence required to fully slam dunk an argument and allow the public to reach a rational conclusion. But instead have to sit back and face the jibing taunts of the believers who claim that you are afraid to debate them.

The media claim that they like to represent the spectrum of viewpoints and political opinions. Therefore, in the UK we would expect to see equal amounts of time made available to representatives from each of the 3 major political parties. This in principle shows an unbiased viewpoint. The manifesto and proposals of each party will have certain supporters and who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s therefore up to the media to provide equal unbiased reporting of each viewpoint to allow the public to form an opinion on their stance. This is fine when we are presented with potentially valid alternatives. However, when the media extend this philosophy to other matters such as supernatural phenomenon, alternative medicine, pseudo science and creationism/ID, the unbiased intention breaks down as the alternative viewpoints expressed are often of massively varying validity. If a widely accepted peer reviewed theory backed up with substantial and valid evidence is challenged by a believer who merely prefers a supernatural explanation for the phenomenon, then we cannot assume the same level of validity for his argument. However by presenting the argument in the media with one person representing the agreed scientific consensus and one person representing an unsubstantiated fantasy, the media automatically give the false impression that there is a 50/50 split in the validity of both positions by fairly granting equal time to both advocates. Even if the representative of the agreed scientific consensus successfully presents an incontrovertible argument significant members of the public will none the less be swayed by the preposterous alternatives because a respectable news channel or newspaper has given them the opportunity to air they’re views, or perhaps because of the celebrity status of its representative or shared beliefs or religious convictions in common with the representative.

In the UK the media do not extend the courtesy of allowing equal political debate time to the Monster Raving Looney party. Despite the fact that this is a “valid” political party, there are no cries of unfairness when the BBC does not allow the same amount of coverage for representatives of this party to present their manifestos and views. I suspect that this is because no one takes the Monster Raving Looney party seriously, and would therefore not expect it to be given an equal weighting. Indeed if it were given an equal weighting I imagine that there would be complaints of time wasting rather than focusing on valid debates. This suggests that the answer to the conundrum of ensuring the media do not cow-tow to the believers wishing to air their delusions and engage in pointless debates between established principles, is to ensure the opposing viewpoint is widely understood as nonsense. While the established viewpoint should be promoted and spread with rational education (and of course revised an updated in the light of credible evidence to the contrary), what is the validity in simply publicly ridiculing and deriding irrational beliefs to the extent that the public would view any such debate as a joke. Is there a sliding scale of things we can ridicule? The majority of us seem happy to deride flat earthers and UFO abductees, but what about young earth creationists, psychics, astrologers, dowsers, new age nutters, regression therapists, homeopaths and alternative medicine advocates, can the enlightened show no sympathy with such ideas and publicly treat these topics which such contempt and ridicule that the notion of an equal footing debate is something the media could not take seriously.

Having just re-read the above thoughts, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with my conclusions. As a person who likes to encourage the scientific principle to advance the truth, why am I advocating childish name calling rather than serious debate?